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More Nonsense About the Liberty U Debate Team

More Nonsense About the Liberty U Debate Team February 3, 2012

A few years ago I debunked the nonsense being put out by Liberty University about their debate team being the best in the country. Now it’s come up again because Liberty’s former coach, Brett O’Donnell, is Mitt Romney’s new debate coach and is being credited with dramatically improving Mitt’s performance in the last debate. NPR delivers the bullshit this time:

TOMASSONI: For nearly 20 years, the Fort Belvoir, Virginia native trained the best college debate team in the country at his alma mater, Liberty University, in Lynchburg. He spent 80-hour weeks and months away from his family gearing up for debates. During his tenure, the team won more than a dozen national championships.

NOEL YATES: Here we were from Liberty, the small Christian school, and we were able to go out and compete against the likes of the Naval Academy. And not only were we able to compete, we were able to win.

TOMASSONI: That’s Noel Yates. She started on O’Donnell’s team as a freshman in the early ’90s knowing nothing about debate. But she learned quickly under O’Donnell’s direction.

I have many friends who know O’Donnell, like him and think he’s a very good debate coach. And he did build a terrific debate program at Liberty, but you have to know something about college debate to know why the claim that it’s the “best college debate team in the country” is one big lie. It’s true that Liberty is nearly always ranked as the top team at all three levels (novice, junior varsity and varsity), but those rankings have nothing to do with which team is the best.

Those rankings are determined by points accumulated at tournaments, and the more teams a school sends, the more points they’re going to get (a debate “team” is two people; a debate squad or program will have many two-person teams). Liberty accumulates more points than anyone else because they send lots and lots of teams to lots and lots of tournaments, especially in novice and junior varsity competition. But most of the good debate programs don’t even have novice or junior varsity teams, everyone just competes in varsity.

At the varsity level, Liberty is thoroughly mediocre. The national championship for varsity college debate is the National Debate Tournament. In 2011, Liberty had two teams competing in that tournament; they went 3-5 and 4-4 respectively. They rarely have a winning record at the NDT, or even at any of the big tournaments held around the country leading up to it.

What the Liberty debate team does for novices — kids that didn’t participate in debate in high school — is great. It gives them an opportunity that most kids don’t have. It should be praised. But to turn that into them being the “best team in the country” is beyond asinine. Every single person who reads that statement, and many like it from the Liberty folks over the years, assumes that by “best team in the country” they mean that their team beats the other good teams heads up by the same criteria, but that is absolutely false.

Believe me, when the top debate teams in the country — Harvard, Northwestern, Emory, Michigan State, Kansas, Wake Forest, etc — see that they’re going up against Liberty in the next round at a tournament, they don’t think “Oh no, it’s the best team in the country!” They think “easy win.” That doesn’t mean that what Liberty does isn’t valuable, it is; but it doesn’t make them anything remotely like the best debate team in the country. It makes them a really big team with a lot of money to send novice and JV debaters to a lot of tournaments. And that’s all it makes them.


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